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Eastern Washington coach Shantay Legans says facing No. 2 Gonzaga will be like ‘playing NBA 2K on expert mode’

Eastern Washington head coach Shantay Legans speaks to players on the court late the second half Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019, in Cheney. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington head coach Shantay Legans speaks to players on the court late the second half Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019, in Cheney. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Gonzaga has played several Big Sky Conference programs over the past eight years.

None was Eastern Washington, the school 17 miles down the road.

Southern Utah (2012), Sacramento State (2014), Northern Arizona (2015), Montana (2015), North Dakota (2017) and Idaho State (2018) and many other low-major Division I programs have dotted Gonzaga’s nonconference schedules since Nov. 11, 2011, when the Bulldogs and Eagles previously faced each other at McCarthey Athletic Center.

Jeffrey Forbes’ 3-pointer gave EWU a 65-64 lead late in the second half before the 23rd-ranked Bulldogs outscored the Eagles 13-4 down the stretch, 11 coming from the free-throw line in a 77-69 decision.

EWU trails the all-time series 34-5 and hasn’t beaten the Bulldogs since 1990.

That changes Saturday when the Eagles (7-3) face second-ranked Gonzaga (12-1) at McCarthey Athletic Center, a game featuring two of the most productive offenses in the country.

EWU, picked first in the Big Sky Conference preseason coaches poll, leads NCAA Division I in scoring (90.7 ppg), ranks second in assists per game (19.9 apg) and is seventh in 3-pointers per game (10.3 per).

Gonzaga ranks fourth in scoring and first in assists (225), but with a much brawnier schedule than EWU, downing the likes Oregon (73-72), Washington (83-76) and Arizona (84-40) and shorthanded North Carolina (94-81).

Third-year EWU head coach Shantay Legans like the timing of the rekindled local game, which was played almost annually until after the 2011-2012 season.

“(Gonzaga administration) said, ‘Hey, if you want to get it done, let’s get it done.’ ” Legans said. “We had to move a game to make this happen, but I’ll do that to play Gonzaga.

“I hope we play them every year.”

This is the highest-ranked team the Eagles have faced.

Gonzaga is a different program than when it previously faced EWU, when the Bulldogs were a NCAA Tournament regular with five Sweet 16 appearances and a single Elite Eight on its resume.

The Bulldogs have since elevated their status among college basketball’s best, totaling five Sweet 16 appearances, three Elite Eights, a Final Four, a national championship game appearance and multiple No. 1 rankings.

Gonzaga has also had seven players in the NBA draft since 2011, including five in the first round, helping to boost the Bulldogs’ recruiting to an elite level.

It will be on full display Saturday when the guard-heavy Eagles try to match up with 6-foot-11 Filip Petrusev (16.2 ppg, 8.1 rpg); 6-10 Killian Tillie (12.8 4.4 rpg); 6-10 Drew Timme (9.8 ppg, 5 rpg) and versatile 6-7 guard Corey Kispert (15 ppg, 4.2 rpg).

“They got size, they got graduate transfers as guards, and some of the best posts players in the country,” Legans said of Gonzaga. “It’s like playing (the video game) NBA 2K on expert mode.”

EWU will look to its top players in 6-4 guard Jacob Davison (18.1 ppg), 6-6 forward Kim Aiken Jr. (16.7 ppg, 11.9 rpg) and its biggest starter, 6-8 forward Mason Peatling (15.7 ppg, 6.9 rpg), all efficient long-range shooters.

The previous big, athletic team with NBA prospects on EWU’s schedule was Washington, which beat the Eagles 90-80 in Seattle on Dec. 4.

Peatling is looking forward to matching up with Gonzaga in its raucous environment.

“It’s exciting for me, personally,” Peatling said. “I’m Australian, so I don’t know the region too well, but being so close to Spokane, Gonzaga is what everyone talks about.

“They’re definitely the big dogs around here, so we’re looking forward to the challenge. Going against a top-notch program will be very exciting for us.”

Looking back

While Gonzaga against EWU has been a lopsided series – the Eagles have dropped 24 straight to their Spokane County neighbor – there were exciting battles in the early 2000s.

Gonzaga needed overtime on Dec. 3, 2001, to down EWU 84-74 at The Kennel. The Eagles had a 16-point second-half lead, but All-American Dan Dickau (22 points) helped the Bulldogs rally.

When the teams met again a year later at the Spokane Arena, the Eagles blew a 17-point second-half lead. Blake Stepp’s 3-pointer with 30 seconds left lifted Gonzaga in a 67-64 win.

December Big Sky scares for GU

The last time Gonzaga lost to a Big Sky foe was Dec. 23, 2008, when eventual Big Sky champion Portland State shocked the Bulldogs 77-70 at McCarthey Athletic Center. Both teams advanced to the NCAA Tournament that season, with the Bulldogs reaching the Sweet 16 before falling to eventual nation champion North Carolina.

On Dec. 8, 2015, No. 20 Gonzaga trailed Montana 58-56 at home with less than a minute left before Josh Perkins hit a free throw and a key jumper to help the Bulldogs hold on for a 61-58 win. Gonzaga advanced to the Sweet 16 that season and Montana finished runner-up in the Big Sky regular season and conference tournament.

Defending Big Sky regular-season and conference champion North Dakota took No. 12 Gonzaga to overtime in Spokane on Dec. 16, 2017. Gonzaga won 89-83, but UND guard Geno Crandall – who would eventually play for the Bulldogs as a graduate transfer the following season – scored 28 points. Gonzaga later advanced to the Sweet 16 and UND finished a disappointing 12-20, its last season in the Big Sky before moving to the Summit League.

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